Top positive review
THE FIRST LAW meets UNFORGIVEN in a brutal fantasy Western that meditates on violence and redemption
Reviewed in the United States on October 7, 2018
I was a huge fan of Joe Abercrombie's The First Law trilogy, a dark, grounded fantasy about a series of deeply flawed antiheroes, each of which struggled with their own shortcomings and weaknesses in an effort to do something greater. What resulted, though, was a pretty unflinchingly dark series about violence and cruelty, showing how hard it is to change, and how the world cares little for intentions in the face of power and will. The whole trilogy was epic, rich, character-driven, and stark, delivering rich writing, complex worldbuilding, and satisfying character arcs that struggled with questions of redemption, forgiveness, guilt, and change.
While The First Law is a self-contained series, that didn't stop Abercrombie from writing more stories set in that world. And while I haven't read any of the others, if they're even half as good as the incredible Red Country, I need to read them post-haste.
It won't take you long to realize that Red Country is Abercrombie's take on the Western genre, even with its fantasy trappings. Opening on a town far away from the cities of The First Law, Abercrombie shows us weathered, hardscrabble men and women who have left behind the comforts of "civilization" for the new frontiers of the Far Country. Some are looking for gold and new wealth; some are leaving behind their old lives in hopes of a fresh start; some are businessmen, looking for towns where they can make their fortune; and some are soldiers of fortune, expanding the Empire by force and crushing any thought of rebellion among those who might be using the lack of central authority to make their own power.
It's familiar fare, done with Abercrombie's usual rich writing, dark humor, and complex characterization. And when the young siblings of a woman named Shy South get kidnapped by raiders and sold to a tribe, it's easy to think that Abercrombie is going for a Searchers homage here. Here's the uneasy relationship between profit, racism, and violence; here's characters whose lives of violence have led them to indulge their worst tendencies; here's questions about the relationship between "civilization" and "savage" and which is the case.
But then, in the space of one line, Abercrombie made me realize that what I was reading wasn't The Searchers; it was Unforgiven - a study of a lifetime of violence, of what it does to the soul, and whether there's any returning from it. Oh, there are other elements at play here - the exploration of frontier towns will remind any Western fan of the seedy anarchy that Deadwood gave us in its first season, and that Searchers feel never quite goes away - but in true Abercrombie fashion, this is a story about violence and those who deal it out.
(This is the part where I mention that, while you don't have to read The First Law to appreciate Red Country, it definitely will increase the book's greatness. While Red Country entirely stands alone, there is an aspect of the book that is deeply informed by the events of that series and is never spelled out in Red Country's pages. It gives the events we're watching a whole different feel, and undeniably raises the tension of what we're reading as we wait for that shoe to drop.)
There's a lot going on here - Abercrombie follows several major characters as they interweave, and alternates third-person limited narration between them (although we are never given a window into the mind of one key player, interestingly, leaving him defined entirely by his actions). And while the story starts simply enough - with the pursuit of these kidnapped children - there's so much more going on, including the fate of the tribes who inhabited this land before "civilization" came along, a fight for self-sovereignty, a crew of mercenaries destroying everything in their path...
...and yet, what makes Red Country great is none of that. No, what makes it great are the character arcs, as Abercrombie does something he never was able to do in The First Law: he lets them attempt to find redemption and absolution from their sins, as they grapple with their pasts and look inward to see if change is possible. Does Abercrombie give us easy answers? Unequivocally no - this is a hard book, with brutal violence, characters who let us down, and changes for the worse. But he never forgets that the quest for redemption is important in of itself, and maybe worth doing, even if it's never quite possible. And as we watch these characters struggling through the darkness and attempting to find any light to cling to, Abercrombie finds their dignity and humanity, even while keeping true to the broken people they are.
Red Country is an absolute knockout - it's riveting, exciting, brutal, surprising, and completely gripping, but more than that, it's satisfyingly rich, both in terms of the world we're seeing and - more importantly - in terms of the characters we're meeting. It's everything I loved about The First Law but even more so, giving me unforgettable characters and a final scene that couldn't be more perfect in how it draws together the themes of the book. The First Law was stunning, but this is something truly special. A must for any fantasy fan, but also for anyone interested in how you tell the story of an antihero.